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5 Mar, 2013 21:18

‘Father of the Internet': Google should stop requesting real names

‘Father of the Internet': Google should stop requesting real names

A top Google executive recognized as one of the foremost pioneers of the Web warns that the search engine giant’s policy of putting real names and faces on the Internet could have dangerous repercussions.

Vint Cerf, Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist” and a man largely considered as one of “the fathers of the Internet,” tells Reuters this week that he disagrees with how the company he works for is handling the growing number of personal profiles going up on the Web.

According to Cerf, a former DARPA scientist and a Stanford assistant professor, Google and other big-name Internet companies should not make it mandatory for users to post on websites with their real names and faces. In some situations, says Cerf, anonymity is the only option.

"Using real names is useful," he says, “but I don't think it should be forced on people, and I don't think we do."

Some have argued otherwise, though, and point out recent attempts from Google by way of its Google+ social networking service and YouTube as example. On both fronts, customers are encouraged to use their real name and identity while interacting with others. Speaking to Reuters, Cerf said inner-office discussions about whether or not to make names mandatory did occur, and he’s satisfied with the outcome.

"There was a debate on this subject and it was resolved," he says. "Our conclusion was that choice is important."

Citing global-crackdowns on users of the Web, however, Cerf says situations continue to emerge where people around the world may fear of being targeted for speaking out online. In an op-ed published late last year on CNN.com, Cerf said that even attempts by democratic nations to silence Web users are on the rise.

"At Google, we see and feel the dangers of the government-led Net crackdown," Cerf wrote in December.

Only one month earlier, Google admitted in sharing its bi-annual transparency report that governments around the world were demanding the Web service hand over information about users at an alarming pace.

“This is the sixth time we’ve released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise,” Google acknowledged in November. According to that report, the US government filed more than 16,000 requests for user data from Google on as many as 7,969 individual accounts between just January and June of 2012. When they published their end-of-the-year findings, Google reported that the United States led the world in requests. The corporation was mostly subpoenaed for personal information, and claims to have honored those pleas around 88 percent of the time.

But when court orders can’t be obtained, it’s still easy to find out information about a person based solely on their Internet use. With Google and Facebook dominating Web traffic worldwide, requiring users to act as their real-life selves on the Web could mean that governments will have an easier time than ever monitoring people.

That isn’t to say, adds Cerf, that an anonymous-only Internet is the way to go. "Anonymity and pseudonymity are perfectly reasonable under some situations," he tells Reuters, "but there are cases where in the transactions both parties really need to know who are we talking to. So what I'm looking for is not that we shut down anonymity, but rather that we offer an option when needed that can strongly authenticate who the parties are."

Cerf’s frank remarks come in spite of insistence from critics that Google is only doing harm to the privacy of its customers. In 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt defended his company’s policies to CNBC, saying, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.”